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LATIN AMERICA: Jewish Communities Ratchet Up Complaints of Anti-Semitism

Diana Cariboni *

MONTEVIDEO, Aug 10 2006 (IPS) - Every time armed conflict flares up in the Middle East, Israeli embassies and Jewish communities around the world step up their efforts in defence of the Israeli cause, regularly accusing the press, or governments that criticise Israel’s foreign policy, of anti-Semitism.

Governments and reporters in the Western world hate to be dubbed anti-Semitic. But the new war on two simultaneous fronts, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, appears to have somewhat eased that worry.

Officially, the murder of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others by Hezbollah triggered the retaliation by Israel, which launched a military offensive on Jul. 12 against that Lebanese Shiite militia that is heavily funded by Iran.

But the recovery of the kidnapped soldiers is not the sole, nor even the most important, Israeli objective. The purpose of the air and ground attacks, the Israeli government has stated, is to destroy or dismantle Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, in the exercise of its “legitimate right to self-defence” – in the words of the Israeli government – the main victim of the attacks is Lebanon, whose territory has been blockaded by air, sea and land since the first days of the conflict and whose civilian population has accounted for most of the casualties.

Latin America has not been left out of the escalation of statements and communiqués issued by governments, the media, Jewish community leaders and organisations and Israeli diplomats and embassies around the world.

On Jul. 30, Peru’s new President Alan García interrupted his first cabinet meeting to put out a statement – through Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde – condemning the Israeli air attack on the Lebanese village of Qana, which killed at least 54 civilians, including 34 children.

“We have no built-in pressure to keep us from taking a stance,” García Belaúnde told IPS. “It’s true that there has been a change with respect to the position taken by (former president Alejandro) Toledo (who governed until Jul. 28). You could say that Peru has recovered its independence with respect to the question of Israel.”

The minister was alluding to the fact that Toledo’s wife, Belgian-born anthropologist Eliane Karp, is Jewish, as is one of the former president’s closest friends and advisers, businessman Adam Pollak.

International analyst Farid Kahhat, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, commented to IPS that not only was there “a kind of pro-Israeli lobby headed up by the first lady,” but the Toledo administration was keen on becoming “a privileged ally of Washington.”

“That complacent attitude towards Israel had to do with subordination, with the close, almost intimate, alliance with the United States that Toledo wanted for Peru,” said Kahhat.

On Jul. 13, when the United Nations Security Council debated a resolution condemning Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, Peru was one of the four countries that abstained from voting. (The United States vetoed the resolution).

According to García Belaúnde, so far the Israeli embassy has made no comment on the position taken by the administration of Alan García. “Nor would we submit to pressure of any kind,” he added.

With respect to Hezbollah, he said “we condemn the suicidal policies of those religious fanatics. We do not accept any justification for violence, on either side.”

The Peruvian chapter of the global rights watchdog Amnesty International held a vigil Monday calling for a ceasefire on neutral ground: a city square in Lima.

“We do not want to politicise the issue,” Amnesty activist Ismael Vega told IPS. “Our basic message is a call for an end to the attacks, without expressing support for either side. That is also why we have urged an embargo on sales of weapons to both sides.”

The Jewish community in Peru has not spoken out on the position taken by the García administration or on local media coverage of the conflict. But one of its members has. In an op-ed piece published Jul. 22 in the local daily El Comercio, León Trahtemberg stated that “The media, of course, have reported on the Israeli attack as if Israel were the aggressor. Only the Lebanese dead are taken into account. The Israeli dead are invisible.”

The official figures indicate that 1,000 Lebanese – 90 percent of them civilians – have been killed so far, while the Israeli casualties total nearly 100, mainly soldiers. Meanwhile, the Red Cross reports that some 800,000 people have fled their homes in Lebanon.

“We have no problem with the Lebanese people. Our problem is with Hezbollah,” Israel’s ambassador to Uruguay, Yoel Barnea, said on Jul. 20, responding to what he called “imprecise” and “unfortunate” statements by the government of President Tabaré Vázquez..

The Uruguayan Foreign Ministry had released a communiqué referring to “the crisis of violence between Israel and the Lebanese population” and calling for “an immediate ceasefire” and “the start of peace talks under United Nations supervision.”

Barnea added that in the past few weeks, there have been “Uruguayan positions that have annoyed Israel.”

He was referring to a declaration by the leftist governing Broad Front party on the conflict with the Palestinians, which was described as “the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian elected government”. The statement also called for “the liberation of ministers, lawmakers and thousands of Palestinian detainees” and “a halt to the bombardment of the civilian population” in the Gaza Strip.

“We feel outraged by many national and international actorsàwho rush to condemn Israel for taking reprisals against the terrorist acts of which it is the target,” Gerardo Stuczynski, the head of the Zionist Organisation of Uruguay, said at a rally in solidarity with Israel on Jul. 24.

The Mexican government, in the meantime, condemned Hezbollah’s kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers as well as Israel’s “disproportionate use of force.”

On Jul. 26, Mexico also criticised Israel’s attack on a U.N. observation post in Lebanon. That same day, a local Mexican newspaper published an “urgent” call for the United Nations to take action to curb Israel’s military offensive in Lebanon, signed by 352 prominent artists, business leaders, politicians and academics.

The ad also condemned “Hezbollah’s paramilitary actions.”

Nevertheless, Israeli ambassador to Mexico, David Dadonn, called a press conference that day to accuse those who placed the ad of “indirectly supporting Islamic terrorism” by “encouraging” Hezbollah. He also demanded a public apology from them, and said coverage of the conflict by the Mexican media was biased.

“I accuse the signatories of this petition of a lack of moral values, and I accuse them of making a difference between Israeli civilian victims and Lebanese victims,” said the ambassador.

One of the signatories, the founding director of the La Jornada newspaper, Carlos Payán, responded in an open letter to the ambassador that “During the Holocaust, there was an active crime, committed by the Nazis, as well as a crime of omission, committed by all of those who kept silent in the face of atrocities.”

“I am not going to keep silent in the face of what I consider systematic killings caused by the state of Israel,” he added.

On Jul. 27, the Mexican Foreign Ministry criticised Dadonn’s remarks as “excessive” and said he had “overreached his functions.”

Argentina’s powerful Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, and the Israeli embassy in that country did not comment on the Argentine government’s statements on the crisis.

But according to the newspaper Ámbito Financiero, Jewish leaders pressured two large dailies, Clarín and Página/12, for what they considered biased coverage.

Ámbito Financiero reported on an email campaign calling for a boycott of Clarín because of the “partiality” it allegedly demonstrated in its reports on the conflict.

Neither Clarín nor Página/12 mentioned the matter.

But shortly afterwards, Clarín published interviews with Israeli Ambassador Rafael Eldad and the Jewish community’s three most influential leaders.

“I am not saying that there should be no criticism of Israel, but sometimes it is demonisedàand that comes from centuries-old prejudices,” said Eldad.

Jorge Kirszenbaum, with the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas, told Clarín that “the international coverage of the conflict is inadequate and unfair, because the emphasis is put only on the casualties on one side.”

When the journalist interviewing him replied that even Israeli columnists had questioned the morality of the state of Israel, especially after the bombing of Qana, Kirszenbaum responded that “Israel is held to extremely high standards; there are double standards at work here. Israel has been demonised on this issue from the very start of its existence.”

Expressions of anti-Semitism are not rare in Argentina, but none have been reported since the start of the current conflict.

Hezbollah is suspected in connection with two explosions in the Argentine capital in the 1990s: a car bomb that killed 29 people in and around the Israeli embassy in 1992, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre, in which 86 people were killed. Neither case has been solved.

In neighbouring Chile, the government of Michelle Bachelet issued several declarations, describing the Israeli bombardment of a U.N. post and the killing of four U.N. observers as “unacceptable”, and condemning attacks on both the Lebanese and Israeli civilian populations.

“As a government, we condemn any attack that involves the death of innocent people,” said Bachelet. “We cannot allow more innocent victims to die, above all children.”

Taking a more radical stance, Deputies Iván Paredes and Sergio Aguiló and Senator Alejandro Navarro, who like Bachelet belong to Chile’s Socialist Party, urged the government to recall Chile’s ambassador to Israel and to expel the Israeli ambassador in protest for the attacks.

* Marcela Valente (Argentina), Daniela Estrada (Chile), Adrián Reyes (Mexico) and Milagros Salazar (Peru) contributed to this report.

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